STORIES FROM BIG SUR HIGHWAY ONE CONSTRUCTION by Stan Harlan
It was the spring of 1933 that much activity occurred, in preparation for the construction of Highway One, on our property at Lopez Point. I was going on 6 years of age while Donald was already 8 and Gene was 12. At first, there was much activity by survey crews establishing where the highway was to actually be built. A convict crew then came through with hand tools building a trail on grade with the intended highway location. All of this activity originated from the south where we had already observed the blasting and heavy machinery advancing slowly up the coast for at least a year.
On a number of occasions we had walked down the coast on the Old Coast Trail and observed the techniques being used to create a roadway through some very rough country. Where there were rocky outcrops the convicts were assigned tunnel building for the placement of dynamite and black powder charges. I remember Lime Kiln Point in particular where the whole rock bluff was interlaced with man-sized 3 foot by 5 foot tunnels through the solid rock.
Tunnel construction was done with compressed air operated rock drills which were hand held and connected to a large engine operated air compressor located at the end of the work road with a long set of rubber hoses and steel pipe. The rock drills made holes in the rock approximately an inch and a quarter in diameter and sometimes were made many feet into the rock wall. The rock drill extensions came in different lengths, but they all had a bit or point threaded onto one end and the other end was forged to fit the business end of the rock drill. Some extensions were only 2 feet in length and others were 4 ft., 6 ft. 8 ft., etc. As the holes got deeper a longer drill rod extension was used. The drill rods had a small hole in the center extending their full length so compressed air ejected the rock flakes and dust out of the drilled hole and back into the face of the man holding the rock drill. After a number of holes had been drilled into the rock face of the tunnel the convicts would load them with dynamite and connect the igniters or (caps as we called them) electrically with a long piece of 2 conductor wire (blasting wire as we called it) to a hand operated blasting generator. When all personnel were evacuated from the tunnel a man pushed down hard on the plunger of the blast generator causing an electrical charge to ignite the caps and set off the dynamite charges.
Excavating the resulting rock rubble was done by hand by loading the pieces into a steel buggy that had four wheels riding on steel rail tracks. The loaded buggy was either pushed by hand or pulled with a rope to the tunnel outlet where it was dumped and then returned for another load. As the tunnel was extended the rail tracks were also extended. The convicts doing this kind of work seemed to accept the dangers and the unpleasantness of the job and even became quite proud of their special abilities. Some became true experts at placing the right quantity and type of explosives to accomplish the best result with the greatest efficiency. I was told that convicts on good behavior could have their sentences reduced by one day for each day they put in on projects like this. (Article also appeared in the January edition of the Big Sur Round-up. The Round-up is published monthly and can be sent to you for only $11 per year. Send your check to The Round-up, P.O. Box 234, Big Sur, CA 93920.)
5 thoughts on “Weds reading: Highway One construction, part 1, by Stan Harlan”
Very interesting first-person history; looking forward to more of this content.
Love these historical stories.
How awesome to have such a great piece of history about the Big Sur highway!!! I grew up with Donald’s son, Mike. And truly loved Don’s story you published some time ago. Thank you so much for making stories like this one available to those of us who cherish Big Sur and its history!!
Wow! Mind-boggling!!! Hard to believe what could be accomplished without all of today’s fancy equipment. 😉
Thanks so much for posting this. I loved reading about the Coast Highway. Brings to mind the story my Dad, Milton Kastor, told of hauling rock for the bridge abutments, using Jake Getz’s old rubber tired truck.